Haliburton and the Military-Industrial Complex
I heard Jane Mayer on NPR this morning talking about her piece in The New Yorker “Contract Sport: What did the Vice-President do for Halliburton? To be honest, I don’t think I’d ever heard of the company until the 2000 campaign when it turned out that Dick Cheney had been heading it since retiring as Bush 41’s SECDEF. I was surprised to hear how long the company has been around doing precisely the kind of work it’s now doing in Iraq.
Halliburton has become a favorite target for Democrats, who use it as shorthand for a host of doubts about conflicts of interest, undue corporate influence, and hidden motives behind Bush Administration policyÃ¢€”in particular, its reasons for going to war in Iraq. Like Dow Chemical during the Vietnam War, or Enron three years ago, Halliburton has evolved into a symbol useful in rallying the opposition. On the night that John Kerry won the Iowa caucuses, he took a ritual swipe at the AdministrationÃ¢€™s Ã¢€œopen handÃ¢€ for Halliburton.
Defenders of Halliburton deny that it has been politically favored, arguing that very few other companies could have handled these complex jobs. As Cheney said last September on Ã¢€œMeet the Press,Ã¢€Ã¢€œHalliburton is a unique kind of company. There are very few companies out there that have the combination of very large engineering construction capability and significant oil-field services.Ã¢€ Dan Guttman, a fellow at Johns Hopkins University, agrees with CheneyÃ¢€™s assessment, but sees HalliburtonÃ¢€™s dominance as part of a wider problemÃ¢€”one that has reached a crisis point in Iraq. After years of cutting government jobs in favor of hiring private firms, he said, Ã¢€œcontractors have become so big and entrenched that itÃ¢€™s a fiction that the government maintains any control.Ã¢€ He wasnÃ¢€™t surprised that HalliburtonÃ¢€™s admission of wrongdoing in Kuwait had failed to harm its position in Washington. Ã¢€œWhat can the government sayÃ¢€”Ã¢€˜Stop right thereÃ¢€™?Ã¢€ Guttman said of Halliburton. Ã¢€œTheyÃ¢€™re half done rebuilding Iraq.Ã¢€
The Vice-President has not been connected directly to any of HalliburtonÃ¢€™s current legal problems. CheneyÃ¢€™s spokesman said that the Vice-President Ã¢€œdoes not have knowledge of the contracting disputes beyond what has appeared in newspapers.Ã¢€ Yet, in a broader sense, Cheney does bear some responsibility. He has been both an architect and a beneficiary of the increasingly close relationship between the Department of Defense and an Ãƒ©lite group of private military contractorsÃ¢€”a relationship that has allowed companies such as Halliburton to profit enormously. As a government official and as HalliburtonÃ¢€™s C.E.O., he has long argued that the commercial marketplace can provide better and cheaper services than a government bureaucracy. He has also been an advocate of limiting government regulation of the private sector. His vision has been fully realized: in 2002, more than a hundred and fifty billion dollars of public money was transferred from the Pentagon to private contractors.
According to Peter W. Singer, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of Ã¢€œCorporate Warriors,Ã¢€ published last year, Ã¢€œWeÃ¢€™re turning the lifeblood of our defense over to the marketplace.Ã¢€ Advocates of privatization, who have included fiscally minded Democrats as well as Republicans, have argued that competition in the marketplace is the best way to control costs. But Steven Kelman, a professor of public management at Harvard, notes that the competition for Iraq contracts is unusually low. Ã¢€œOn battlefield support, there are only a few companies that are willing and able to do the work,Ã¢€ he said. Moreover, critics such as Waxman point out that public accountability is being sacrificed. Ã¢€œWe canÃ¢€™t even find out how much Halliburton charges to do the laundry,Ã¢€ Waxman said. Ã¢€œItÃ¢€™s inexcusable that they should keep this information from the Congress, and the people.Ã¢€
Unlike government agencies, private contractors can resist Freedom of Information Act requests and are insulated from direct congressional oversight. Jan Schakowsky, a Democratic representative from Illinois, told me, Ã¢€œItÃ¢€™s almost as if these private military contractors are involved in a secret war.Ã¢€ Private companies, she noted, can conceal details of their missions from public scrutiny in the name of protecting trade secrets. They are also largely exempt from salary caps and government ethics rules designed to protect policy from being polluted by politics. The Hatch Act, for example, forbids most government employees from giving money to political campaigns.
HalliburtonÃ¢€™s construction-and-engineering subsidiary, Brown & Root Services, started working with the U.S. military decades before Cheney joined the firm. Founded in Texas, in 1919, by two brothers, George and Herman Brown, and their brother-in-law, Dan Root, the firm grew from supervising small road-paving projects to building enormously complex oil platforms, dams, and Navy warships. The companyÃ¢€™s engineering feats were nearly matched by its talent for political patronage. As Robert A. Caro noted in his biography of Lyndon Johnson, Brown & Root had a symbiotic relationship with L.B.J.: the company served as a munificent sponsor of his political campaigns, and in return was rewarded with big government contracts. In 1962, Brown & Root sold out to Halliburton, a booming oil-well construction-and-services firm, and in the following years the conglomerate grew spectacularly. According to Dan Briody, who has written a book on the subject, Brown & Root was part of a consortium of four companies that built about eighty-five per cent of the infrastructure needed by the Army during the Vietnam War. At the height of the resistance to the war, Brown & Root became a target of protesters, and soldiers in Vietnam derided it as Burn & Loot.
There’s quite a bit more in the piece, but you get the idea.
I must admit, outsourcing a large chunk of overseas military operations does raise some interesting command and control issues. This is especially true when most of the work goes to a conglomerate, since it’s difficult to fire it when its subidiaries and subcontractors are found to have engaged in multiple irregularities. But I’m guessing that maintaining this capability in the government sector would be prohibitively expensive, since we would have to pay for it whether we need it at the moment or not.